The ruins of an ancient Christian monastery, likely dating from before the spread of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula, has been discovered on an island off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), officials said Thursday.
The monastery on the island of Siniyah, part of the emirate of Umm al-Quwain, sheds new light on the history of early Christianity on the shores of the Persian Gulf. It is the second such monastery discovered in the Emirates, which dates back 1,400 years.
Both monasteries have been lost in the sands of history, with scholars believing that Christians slowly converted to Islam as the religion spread through the region. For Timothy Power, associate professor of archeology at the University of the UAE, who participated in the research, the UAE is today a “melting pot of nations.”
The monastery is on the island of Siniyah in Umm al-Quwain, an emirate some 50 kilometers northeast of Dubai along the Persian Gulf coast. The island, whose name means “blinking lights,” has a series of sandbars that stand out from it. It was on one of them, in the northeast of the island, that archaeologists discovered the monastery.
The carbon dating of the samples found in the foundations of the monastery is between 534 and 656. Since Muhammad was born around 570 and died in 632, the monastery therefore predates Islam.
The plan of the Siniyah Island Monastery suggests that early Christian worshipers prayed in a single-aisle church. The rooms inside seem to contain baptismal fonts, as well as an oven for baking bread or wafers for communion rites. A nave probably also housed an altar and a facility for communion wine.
Next to the monastery is a second four-room building, probably around a courtyard – possibly the house of an abbot or even a bishop. A few hundred meters from the church, there is a set of buildings which, according to archaeologists, belong to a pre-Islamic village.
The island is still part of the estate of the ruling family, who have protected the land for years so as to allow historical sites to be discovered while most of the UAE has been rapidly developing.
According to historians, the first churches and monasteries spread along the Persian Gulf to the coasts of present-day Oman and as far as India. Archaeologists have found other similar churches and monasteries in Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.
In the early 1990s, archaeologists discovered the UAE's first Christian monastery, on Sir Bani Yas Island, now a nature reserve and site of luxury hotels off Abu Dhabi, near the Saudi border. It dates from the same period as that discovered at Umm al-Quwain.
According to Mr. Power, it was that project that initiated the archaeological work that led to the discovery of the monastery. This site and others will be fenced and protected, he said, although it is not yet known what other secrets of the past remain hidden under a thin layer of sand on the island.
“It is a truly fascinating discovery because, in a way, it is hidden history – it is not something that's widely known,” Mr. Power said.